Author-Illustrator Feature: Laura McGee Kvasnosky

Laura McGee Kvasnosky is the author of several wonderful children’s titles, including the Zelda and Ivy books (Candlewick), One Lucky Summer (Dutton, 2002), and Frank and Izzy Set Sail (Candlewick, 2004). She lives in Seattle.

Laura McGee Kvasnosky on Laura McGee Kvasnosky: “Why write? Because I am the middle of five kids and I am still trying to get a word in edgewise. Because it’s a way to figure out stuff I don’t understand. Because I can’t not write.

“Looking back, I can see I was headed toward writing for a long time. When I was little, I had a stuffed cat named Kitty who starred in stories I acted out for my younger brother and sister. These productions took place on weekend mornings while we waited for the rest of the family to wake up. Kitty had a loud, squeaky voice. He disappeared one day. We looked and looked but never found him.

“As soon as I could read, I became a bookworm. I wish I had a whole other life just for reading. As soon as I could shape letters, I made little books from the paper trimmings Dad brought home from his print shop. In fifth grade I wrote a weekly newspaper, making a copy for each row in the classroom with my careful cursive. My dad was the editor and publisher of the newspaper in our small town, Sonora, California. As each of us five kids went through high school, he taught us to write, by having us compose ‘Campus Letter,’ a weekly column for the paper.

“I changed my major six times at Occidental College before deciding on a degree in journalism. But I always knew I could tell a better story if I didn’t have to stick to the facts, thus preferred writing fiction. While my kids were little, I had a baker’s clay ornament making business for six years, then a graphic design business for 15–all which turned out to be good preparation for making children’s books.

“I am a fourth-generation Californian, now thoroughly mossed over by 32 years in Seattle rain. I love to bike and garden and play the ukulele. My husband, John, and I have two grown children, Timothy and Noelle.”

According to your website biography, you decided when you were 40 to actively pursue your lifelong dream of creating children’s books. Could you tell us more about that decision? What shifted you from dreamer to do-er in this regard?

When my kids were young, some of our best times were spent curled up in the big blue chair reading together. What an amazing thing it is to enter the world of a book together.

I dreamt of making my own picture books, but kept putting it off. Then, about the time I turned 40, a friend died of cancer. She was 54. Who knows how long we get to dabble around here? I determined to take a step toward my dream. I signed up for Keith Baker‘s class in Picture Book Making.

What preparation did you have from your earlier life, and what was your path to publication like?

Like picture book writing, writing for a newspaper is a reductionist task. Both a picture book and a good news story need a hook: a beginning that grabs the reader and sets up what is to come. Every word has to count.

The over-10,000 baker’s clay ornaments I manufactured during my kids’ preschool years were sculpted little children doing various things, perhaps an initial effort to create characters?

Graphic design comes into play in the design of my books as I consider the flow and pacing of the progression of text and illustration.

Most of all, I guess life itself prepares me to make picture books: like a raccoon, I gather all the sparkling, quirky bits of memories, experiences and observations that can be shaped into stories.

I’m sure everyone would love to know more about the story behind Zelda and Ivy (Candlewick, 1998), Zelda and Ivy One Christmas (Candlewick, 2002), and Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door (Candlewick, 2003). How did you come to find these characters? What was the original inspiration?

As the middle of five children, I have experience being led around by an imaginative but bossy older sister and I took the role of the bossy older sister to my younger sibs. This is probably why the push and pull of sibling rivalry fascinates me.

The original Zelda and Ivy book was a dummy book called “Summer Shorts.” I created it in Keith Baker’s class. It featured five human children and many of the tense sibling interactions that are familiar to Zelda and Ivy readers. I sent it around to publishers and it was roundly rejected. Five years and six books later, I thought I’d try those sibling stories again. Maybe they’d work better with only two sisters. I was experimenting at the time with gouache resist, the medium that I eventually used for the Zelda and Ivy books. It worked best in bright colors. Thus, the two sisters became bright red foxes. In a way, that first book was a “gift book.” It fell whole and complete into my lap. But when I look back, I can see the pieces gathered over years.

Could you give us a sneak peek into Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways (Candlewick, 2006)? What are the fabulous fox sisters up to now?

The Runaways, due out June 2006–marks the first of the Zelda and Ivy books to appear in a new, reader-sized format, similar to the size of Frog and Toad [by Arnold Lobel].

There are three chapters: The Runaways, The Time Capsule, and The Secret Concoction. Each of these stories has its roots in either my childhood or in things my own children did. For instance, Zelda prepares the time capsule with this message: “A gift to the world of the future from the world of the past.” When my son was eight, I found that exact note under his rug, on a card with a quarter taped to the bottom.

What about them has drawn you back for book after book? What are the traits of characters who can hold readers beyond one title?

The interaction of younger and older siblings amuses me. There is endless material in the play of one against the other. Often when I visit schools, students give me further adventures that they have written for these characters. It seems the dynamics of sibling relationships are familiar to many readers.

What advice do you have for writing with animal characters?

I don’t think of my characters as animals. Rather, as humans in fox suits.

It’s true, though, that there is something about those fox suits that is freeing and makes it easier to get to the heart of things. Plus, it’s fun to emphasize their foxy-ness: flips of tails, holding paws.

Your debut novel is One Lucky Summer (Dutton, 2002). What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

One Lucky Summer grew over seven years from a picture book in two voices to its present, published form. It is loosely based on the summer that my cousin Jerry lived with my family in a mountain cabin. Like the characters in the book, Jerry and I went from hating each other’s guts to being good friends and back again–often in the space of a day. We, too, nearly drowned in a Siamese Twins swimming race. As I was writing, I was wondering if a 10-year-old girl and boy could be authentic friends. As the story developed, it seemed they could.

I researched pet flying squirrels and Western fence lizards. My friend Julian Snider, who was in fourth grade at the time, provided the illustrations for Steven’s Nature Journal.

Another of your recent titles was Frank and Izzy Set Sail (Candlewick, 2004). What inspired you to write this story? What was the timeline from spark to publication and the major events along the way?

Frank and Izzy took about a year for me to write and illustrate, then another year for Candlewick Press to bring it out.

Frank and Izzy began with a painting I made when I was playing around with leftover paint. I painted a little rabbit and a bear running in the moonlight. They intrigued me. Who were they? Why were they running? Who were they to each other?

The moonlight reminded me of the last night of a ballroom dancing class my husband John and I took at our community center. As we parked our car that night, we could see a big, full moon shining down Lake Washington. At the end of the class, our instructor threw open the doors and turned up the music. We waltzed out into the parking lot. It was one of those times when ordinary life is transcended. Music and moonlight were part of it.

I decided I wanted to make a story about the rabbit and the bear. Music and moonlight would be part of it. I decided Frank would be a bit like John and Izzy a bit like me. The whole story is written toward that single spread of the starry sky, their little campfire flickering on the island in the middle of the darkened lake, and the text, “Frank and Izzy sang to the stars.”

What are the challenges particular to building a career as an author-illustrator?

Mostly, I guess it’s a logistical challenge: it takes much longer to illustrate a book than it does to write one.

What advice do you have for beginners with this goal? How about more established book creators?

If you are starting out, good classes can help get you where you want to go. The Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Adults, for one, is an excellent program to consider. I have taught there six winter residencies, and I have learned a ton from the lectures and visiting writers.

Join SCBWI. Go to the meetings and conferences.

Read widely, especially in the genre in which you expect your stories will fall, i.e. picture books or middle grade novels. Read as a reader and then again as a writer, taking it apart, seeing how it works. Note what you think really works and what doesn’t. Keep track of publishers you like, too, for when you are ready to submit your work.

I think any advice I give is probably advice I need to hear, so I am listening, too, when I say: Take yourself seriously. Work at it daily. Get the information and tools you need to do the job well. Then allow yourself to play.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

There are so many unexpected bonuses of a career in children’s books: speaking opportunities at schools and conferences, teaching opportunities to writers of all ages, and the chance to be part of the amazing resource that is this forum. Thanks, Cynthia. It’s an honor to be part of your wonderful website.

Cynsational Notes

Are you a Zelda or an Ivy? Take the Zelda and Ivy Personality Quiz!

Who Wrote That? Featuring Laura McGee Kvasnosky by Patricia M. Newman; published in California Kids (November 2002).

Patricia also offers recent interviews with: Erin Dealey, author of Little Bo Peep Can’t Get To Sleep (Atheneum, 2005)(author site); Mini Grey, author of The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon (Knopf, 2006); Loretta Ichord, author of More Cooking Through Time: Pasta, Fried Rice, and Matzoh Balls: Immigrant Cooking in America (Millbrook, 2006)(author site); Jackie Briggs Martin, author of On Sand Island (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)(author site); and Barbara Park, author of Junie B., First Grader: Aloha-Ha-Ha! (from the Junie B. Jones series)(Random House, 2006). Patricia herself is the author of Jingle the Brass, illustrated by Michael Chesworth (FSG, 2004)(a Junior Library Guild selection); learn more about Patricia!